Farm to School local farmers

About Farm to School

Frequently Asked Questions

What is farm-to-school?
Farm-to-school programs feature school purchases of food (usually fresh fruits and vegetables) from local farmers. Nutrition lessons can be coordinated with the fresh produce being served for lunch. Programs can also include Ag-in-the-Classroom curriculum, school gardens, food tastings and cooking classes, indoor learning labs, and farm/farmers market visits, all of which get students excited about healthy food.

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How do farm-to-school programs contribute to children’s health?
Farm-to-school programs contribute to children’s health by helping students develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

According to research into existing farm-to-school efforts, students choose significantly more servings of fruits and vegetables when given the choice of high quality, farm-fresh produce. When children are well nourished, they learn better.

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Why is farm-to-school good for students in Oklahoma?
During the last 30 years in Oklahoma, the percentage of overweight children (ages 6-11) has quadrupled, while adolescent rates have more than doubled. Doctors blame poor eating habits for this “obesity epidemic.” High sugar, high fat “fast foods” are being blamed. Obesity can contribute to serious lifelong conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

While Oklahoma students are consuming more calories than they need, they are not eating enough servings of fruits and vegetables. Only 27% of Oklahoma children are eating five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetable. Perhaps this is because they do not see their parents eating healthy foods--only 15% of Oklahoma adults eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, ranking the state last in the nation. Because Oklahoma students eat lunch at school and many eat breakfast there as well, schools and universities have a unique opportunity to improve the nutrition of the students they serve.

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Can you really get students to eat fruits and vegetables?
Several research studies have shown that youth will eat more fruits and vegetables when they have easy access to a variety of high quality fresh items, often on a salad bar where they have a lot of choice. Students from different socio-economic levels respond similarly. Research and the experience of educators has also established that students are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, especially unfamiliar items, if they participate in fun educational activities featuring these foods.

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Farm-to-school programs feature locally grown food. What does locally grown mean?
Locally grown usually means grown nearby.  Oklahoma Farm to school includes food grown in the state. It also includes food products where the main ingredient has been grown in the state.

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Why is locally processed produce better than produce grown elsewhere?
Because locally grown produce is likely harvested at peak ripeness and brought to the consumer in the shortest time possible, it is often of the highest quality--attractive to the eye, with pleasant odor, flavor, texture and feel-- and if handled properly, with high nutritive value. People are more likely to consume fresh fruits and vegetables when they are of high quality.  

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How are farm-to-school programs good for farmers?
Farm-to-school opens up a large new market for farmers. The potential for significant sales exists: in North Carolina, for example, farmers sold $500,000 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables to state schools in 2004-2005. In Oklahoma, according to one estimate, farmers could sell $6 million worth of fruits and vegetables to schools. Such dollars are re-circulated in rural communities, improving the economy.

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How widespread are farm-to-school programs?
Programs now exist in 39 states, including Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Food Policy Council (a joint project of the Okla. Dept. of Agriculture, Food & Forestry and the Kerr Center) has spearheaded the Oklahoma program. The motto of the Oklahoma farm-to-school program is “growing healthy students and a healthy rural economy”.

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How do farm-to-school programs fit into the school lunch program?
Locally grown food can be offered as part of a hot lunch, breakfast, snack or in some schools is offered on a salad bar. Locally grown fruits and vegetables can also be a great addition to schools that are approved for the new fruit and vegetable grant program that is being administered by the OK State Department of Education Child Nutrition Services.

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How does the school lunch program work?
The school lunch program is federally funded. School districts are reimbursed for every school meal they sell. Reimbursements fall into three categories—free, reduced, and full price. University food services operate differently and can participate in the farm to school program as well.

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Where do schools get the money to buy locally grown produce as part of a farm-to-school program?
School food service directors can purchase locally grown produce with the same federal reimbursement money that they use to buy all their food items. Schools also get a small amount of money to purchase locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables through a special Dept. of Defense/USDA partnership that is part of the school commodity program (This program is currently being reorganized).  Some states have added extra funding for fruit & vegetable purchases and some cities are even appropriating extra funds to their school districts.  Some states have set up granting funds to help school districts in the purchase of locally grown produce.

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Is the DoD program the only avenue schools have to purchase locally grown foods?
No. Schools can buy directly from farmers, from farmers’ markets, through an existing distributor or broker who procures from local farmers, or from a growers’ cooperative.

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What have other states done to establish successful farm-to-school programs?
Several states have found that a coordinator is very helpful in getting the program up and running.  North Carolina, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Washington have farm-to-school coordinators who facilitate their programs, as do some school districts, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico.  California has recently passed legislation funding greater procurement of California-grown fruits and vegetables. In North Carolina, the state provided $1,000 “start-up” grants the first year to 50 schools to make purchases from NC farmers; $500 in the second year. The program is now operating successfully without grant funding.  Establishment of such a program in Oklahoma passed in the legislature in June 2006 and the program is growing tremendously with a full time program administrator in place.

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How did the Oklahoma pilot program work?
The watermelons were purchased using commodity funds through the USDA/Dept. of Defense (DoD) Farm-to-School program. DoD worked with an Oklahoma farmer that the Food Policy Council requested and who is part of their extensive produce procurement network. The participating schools placed their orders through the Dept. of Human Service Commodity Division. The orders went to DoD, who contacted the grower, and guaranteed the quality and price. Thomas Bros. Produce, a produce vendor who already sells and delivers to many schools in Oklahoma, delivered the melons for farm to school.

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Which Oklahoma schools have a farm-to-school program?
Four school districts (Broken Arrow, Edmond, Shawnee, and Tahlequah) participated in a pilot project in the 2004/2005 school year. In 2005/2006, Tulsa and Muskogee were added to the four. The districts bought Oklahoma-grown seedless watermelons and served them during the first few weeks of school. The Oklahoma Ag-in-the-Classroom program created a fun and educational “watermelon curriculum” to be used in conjunction with the lunchtime watermelon.

In 2006, the program expanded greatly-- 35 school districts – a total of 370 schools served Oklahoma-grown watermelons and honeydew melons in the cafeteria as part of the official Oklahoma Farm-to-School Program. Since 2006, over 60 school districts are participating in the statewide program and many school districts are purchasing directly from local growers in their community.

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What do school officials and students think about the program?
School food service directors reported that the melons were of high quality-- “The best she ever ate,” was how Broken Arrow food service director Jill Poole put it. Another school reported saying "you would have thought we were handing out dollar bills! The kids loved the melons!"  The melons were delivered in good condition, in a timely manner. By all accounts, the melons were extremely popular with students, teachers, and food service. Several schools received positive media coverage for the farm-to-school watermelons. 

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How can people find out more about the Oklahoma farm-to-school program?
Please contact Market Development Services, 405-522-5563 or Jason.harvey@ag.ok.gov

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Do Oklahoma school districts need more assistance to implement farm-to-school?
In June 2006, the Oklahoma legislature responded to this need by establishing an Oklahoma Farm-to-School program by providing a coordinator located at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to work with expanding the program to more schools, include more farmers, provide more produce items and help develop more food and nutrition hands-on learning opportunities and curriculum.  The Oklahoma State Dept. of Education Child Nutrition Program has initiated educational outreach to school food service directors about farm-to-school and supports the program.

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How can an expanded farm-to-school program benefit Oklahoma farmers?
The 2005 pilot program involving just six school districts spent over $20,000 on Oklahoma-grown watermelons. These kinds of local sales keep dollars in Oklahoma and benefit communities across the state.  The 2006 program involved 35 school districts that spent $44,000 on Oklahoma grown watermelons and honeydew melons.  A farm-to-school program could potentially benefit farms of various sizes. Large school districts may be a good market for larger quantities of fruits and vegetables already grown on a commercial scale in Oklahoma, such as watermelons. Smaller-scale local farms could connect with small and medium-sized schools in the state.

A new market for Oklahoma farm products could spur farm diversification, encouraging Oklahoma farms to grow a greater diversity of crops that could be sold to schools. Farm-to-school could also spur technology and research to help fruit and vegetable growers in the state become more productive.  A robust state farm-to-school program might also benefit Oklahoma food processors and farmers who grow commodity crops. An example is a 100% whole wheat pre-portioned cookie dough made exclusively with Oklahoma grown wheat.

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Since the growing season and the school year don’t completely coincide, how can the farm-to-school program work in Oklahoma?
No one is suggesting that Oklahoma farmers can supply all the fresh fruits and vegetables schools use. We do not have the climate to grow some crops (oranges, for example) that schools want.  There are some crops that schools use or could use that are already grown commercially in the state and can be harvested in the spring or fall. Watermelons are a good example: Oklahoma is ranked #12 nationally in watermelon production, but until recently the melons were not sold in large amounts to Oklahoma schools.  Other summer growing crops can be extended into the fall months until frost like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, sweet corn, sweet potatoes and others.   Many crops that are used on the salad bar grow the best in the spring and the fall through the use of greenhouses or hoop houses making the seasons for those crops extend even further. Summer food programs could also incorporate a wide diversity of Oklahoma-grown fruits and vegetables.

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What Oklahoma-grown crops could be served in Oklahoma schools?
The priority focus is currently on fresh fruits and vegetables such as watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, lettuce, spinach, asparagus, strawberries, and cucumbers to mention a few. There are other food items being tested & developed like 100% whole wheat flour along with 100% whole wheat cookie dough, pizza rounds, and breadsticks.  Other items being considered are all natural beef jerky and beef sticks, all natural cheese and others.

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Isn’t fresh produce hard to handle?
A University of Minnesota research project found while serving healthier meals does mean higher labor costs, they’re offset by the lower costs associated with nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables compared to processed foods.  The researchers acknowledged many districts needed to upgrade their kitchens and train their staff to prepare healthier foods.  Many fresh fruits and vegetables can be served either raw or cooked, making them more versatile than some canned or frozen items and they usually taste better too.

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Does fresh produce have to be inspected by the Oklahoma Dept. of Agriculture before schools can use it?
No inspections are required of fresh, raw produce. Processed items have to follow food safety procedures established by the county or state. Food service should follow the same procedures for washing as they use with all fresh produce.  It is required for the grower to follow safe growing and harvesting practices. The farm to school coordinator makes it a practice to meet with the growers participating in the program

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What are some of the barriers to a widespread farm-to-school program being implemented in Oklahoma?
On the farm side, some produce items require immediate cooling after being harvested and many farmers lack this capacity. Farmers need information about what schools want, procurement policy, and in general what they need to do to make ordering from them convenient for food service.

On the school side, food service directors are doing the best they can to serve nutritious food on tight budgets. They lack information about how best to connect with farmers and procure farm-fresh foods. Teachers need educational activities and ag/nutrition curriculum to implement.

Distribution issues, quality standards and other issues need to be addressed for both sides to effectively connect in a farm-to-school program.

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Can these barriers be overcome?
These barriers can be and are being, overcome.  The Oklahoma Farm to School Program is capitalizing on that foothold, placing Oklahoma squarely in the front ranks of states that are developing farm to school networks.  School districts continue to need information about buying and using locally grown produce along with developing the hands-on learning activities.  Farmers also need information and help in connecting with schools and developing distribution and growing plans.  Oklahoma has created the farm to school program that provides a coordinator to work with the schools and the farmers and help in the development of the extra learning activities that include school gardening, farm visits, indoor learning labs, cooking classes along with nutritional and educational curriculum.

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How are farmers benefitted by the farm-to-school program?
Farmers can diversify their markets by supplying to local schools. Schools represent a steady reliable demand that helps farmers plan their crop planting, harvesting and marketing more effectively. Besides direct revenues, farmers are motivated to participate in these programs as it provides an opportunity to contribute to the health and education of children.  The interaction with students, parents and the community often results in additional sales through farmers markets and other avenues.

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How do I find a farmer to supply my school?
Contact the Farm to School Program Coordinator at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry at (405) 522-2106 or chris.kirby@ag.ok.gov and she can help you locate a farmer in your area and also connect you with farmers growing for the statewide program.  You can meet farmers at local farmers markets and talk to them about their interest in selling to your school.  You can ask your produce distributor if they are purchasing anything from local growers. 

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Why should schools procure locally?
Farm-to-school programs, which buy from local farmers, bring additional educational opportunities for children by way of farm tours, school gardens, cooking classes, indoor learning labs, farmer in the classroom and curriculum.  Connections with the local farms and agriculture help children better understand the cycle of food such as how and who grows it and how it impacts their bodies, health and the community.  All these experiences complete the educational framework that motivates children towards healthier eating habits that will last a lifetime.  Consumers all over the United States are realizing the benefits of establishing closer ties with the food producers and farmers in their region.  Buying local is good for the economy as it contributes to the growth of small businesses, generates jobs and supports local farming.  It is also good for the environment as food produced locally consumes less fossil fuel for transportation and requires less material for packaging.  Local food is good for your community because you can eat the best quality, seasonal foods that are truly fresh and flavorful and at the same time support a local farmer in your community.

With Oklahoma embracing a comprehensive farm-to-school program, it will be in the forefront of innovative efforts to address childhood obesity and improve children's health for the better while creating many rural economic opportunities.

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For more information on the Oklahoma Farm to School Program contact:

Market Development Services
405-522-5563 or
Jason.harvey@ag.ok.gov

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